CHISINAU -- Moldova's north-central city of Balti is emerging as a key hotspot in the latest controversy threatening to split the impoverished country in two.
The pro-Western ruling Alliance for European Integration (AIE) will again this month attempt to pass an antidiscrimination bill that has been praised by the European Union and the United States. But it does so against the objections of an unexpected alliance between the conservative Orthodox Church and the opposition Communist Party.
Both those forces are working hard to convince the conservative country that the new law -- together with the government's 2011 registration of the country's tiny Muslim minority as a state-recognized religion -- would mean the unfettered "Islamization and homosexualization" of Moldova.
And they are making a stand in Balti, where the City Council passed an ordinance banning the "propagandizing" of homosexuality.
"That's just the way I was brought up -- those are my morals," says Alexandr Poneatovski, a Communist lawmaker in the council. "I simply do not recognize these people as members of any sort of normal society."
Balti is one of at least three Moldovan municipalities to pass such laws, which are primarily aimed at preventing Gay Pride parades and are strikingly similar to a law adopted by the Russian city of St. Petersburg last month and to legislation now pending in the Russian State Duma.
Moldovan lawmakers deny that they are following Russia's lead on this issue, but Moldova's Communist Party has close ties with Russia's ruling United Russia party and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has written an open appeal to Moldova to reject the law.
Gay rights activist Angela Frolov
Angela Frolov, head of the GenderDoc-M gay rights group in Chisinau, sees a clear connection between Russia and the present developments in her country.
"The [Moldovan] Communists have strong ties with the Russian Federation, and they follow its example..." she said." They saw that such a measure worked [in St. Petersburg] so they decided to use the same tactics here."
In recent weeks, Balti and other Moldovan cities have been blanketed with leaflets decrying the proposed equality legislation and warning of dire consequences if it is adopted.
"The law on nondiscrimination…acknowledges the dictatorship of homosexualism over normalcy and…gives them [pederasts] more rights than other people," one such leaflet proclaims.
"Any homosexual will be able to practice deviance in PUBLIC places, even in front of our children," the leaflet continues.
"Pederasts will have every right to teach in kindergartens, schools, and universities about how 'fine and normal' it is to be homosexual."
It also claims that because Moldova was once part of the Ottoman Empire, Muslims believe the country must be officially converted to Islam -- and that Christians will be considered "pagans" and beheaded.
It is unclear who the distributors of the anonymous leaflets are, but the government clearly suspects the Orthodox Church.
Police in Balti earlier this week raided two churches in search of the leaflets. It was a rare move by the government against the powerful Orthodox Church
No leaflets were found in the raids, but on April 2, police in Chisinau detained Sergiu Coropceanu, a leader of the small, conservative Social-Democrat Party, after finding 1,300 copies of a leaflet entitled "The Homosexual Manifesto: Now Also In Moldova" in his car.
Prime Minister Vlad Filat went so far as to criticize the church in several public statements in recent days.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Moldova Service on April 1, Filat suggested that the Church was being mean-spirited in its opposition to the nondiscrimination legislation.
"What I think [the opponents of the law] are missing is a degree of tolerance," he said. "The dominant trait seems to be the meanness, which is so alien to everything priests preach in church."
'Protecting Moldovan Health and Purity'
But Orthodox Bishop Marchel, from Balti, is not backing away from his opposition.
"[The raids on the churches] were an attempt to reduce the church and me personally to silence," he said. "It was an attempt to intimidate me because of the statements I have made to support and preserve the pure and healthy moral stance of our Moldovan nation."
Orthodox Bishop Marchel from Balti
Bishop Marchel denied distributing the antigay, anti-Muslim leaflets, but was open in his support of them.
"Two months ago or maybe earlier, I had one of those leaflets in my hand and I can say that they contain the pure truth," he said. "Those leaflets present the true face of homosexuals."
Perhaps as a sign of what is to come for Moldova, two gay-rights activists were detained in St. Petersburg were arrested late last week for carrying signs reading, "Gay Is Normal."
The activists, Aleksei Kiselyov and Kirill Nepomnyashy, face fines of up to 500,000 rubles (about $17,000). Their supporters say the signs merely stated a "scientific fact."
Recently the pop star Madonna provoked controversy when rights activists called on her to cancel an August 9 concert in Russia's second city.
Instead of bowing to the pressure, the star said she would use the event "to speak up for the gay community and to give strength and inspiration to anyone who is or feels oppressed."
Moldovan activist Frolov wondered out loud whether the Russian authorities would dare to arrest Madonna for such "propaganda."
"Maybe it is worth trying to invite her here too," she mused.
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson also contributed to this report